At the 2018 meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature in Denver, two program units collaborated in reviewing two books published by Harvard University Press: Robin Jensen’s The Cross: History, Art and Controversy (2018) and Steven Fine’s The Menorah: From the Bible to Modern Israel (2016).
Independently, the units Early Jewish Christian Relations (co-chaired by Eric Smith and Shira Lander), and Arts and Religions of Antiquity (co-chaired by Lee Jefferson and Felicity Harley-McGowan) engage scholarship that brings Judaism and Christianity into dialogue with each other, and with other religious practices in the Greco-Roman world. The publication of the two books, giving wide-ranging treatment of the central image of Christianity on the one hand, and the most ancient of all Jewish symbols on the other, presented a unique and important opportunity for the units to collaborate. While the symbols of the menorah and the cross have been pivotal in the history of Judaism and Christianity, they are also central to the history of visual culture per se. So although the books can be read and fruitfully discussed in isolation, a joint review offered an opportunity to bring them into dialogue, and thereby to think about their relevance for a range of scholars working in different fields as well as general readers who may work in none.
Throughout their careers, both Jensen and Fine have worked productively to achieve a more synthetic discussion of Jewish and Christian art in antiquity. They have also worked closely together, and so a joint review session provided a venue for the scholars to discuss their work with one other and with reviewers. The scholarship that underpins both books is inherently interdisciplinary, and straddles the fields of art, archaeology, theology, and history. We therefore wanted to bring into dialogue scholars from different disciplines committed to the consideration of religions in the Greco-Roman world, not as distinct entities but as groups in conversation.
Although the bulk of sessions at SBL centre around texts, many scholars are turning to visual evidence, including monuments and objects sourced from the archaeological and material record, to enhance or deepen the engagement with a particular theological, textual, liturgical or historical issue. This review session furnished an opportunity to engage the methodological approaches used by Jensen and Fine, and the skills deployed by them. In reflecting on and celebrating what they have achieved, we should seek to ensure that more scholars are trained in addressing visual and material evidence, and in making use of it across a variety of disciplines and projects.
Felicity Harley-McGowan is an art historian who teaches in the Department of Religious Studies at Yale University, and in the Yale Divinity School.